The specialty cuisine of the Malcolm X Elementary School Garden

By Nora Becker


Elyan is eager to devour her weedo, freshly made in Berkeley’s Malcolm X Elementary School Garden. Photo by Rivka Mason

At the height of recess, six-year-old Ozmo walks the tidy paths between well-tended raised beds in the Malcolm X Elementary School Garden. He stops at a towering plant. “This is tree kale,” he says, picking off a big leaf. “A leaf to have my weedo.”

When asked to define “weedo,” Ozmo responds assuredly at first: “A weedo is something you make … garden fresh …,” but seven-year-old Evelyn jumps in to finish his sentence with: “burrito!” There you have it. A garden-fresh burrito. Weedo.

Rivka Mason—Ms. Rivka, as the children call her—is the garden’s enduring teacher, who since 1998 has been head gardener and recess-time slicer of apples and purple turnips. She knows every inch of the 4,000-square-foot garden, but to a visitor—or a child—the space is more mysterious. The garden seems to shapeshift as one wanders the paths, absorbed in the flowering vegetables and tall tree kales, ending up in parts of the garden that didn’t seem to be there before. Some kind of magic here makes the garden feel much larger, much more enchanting than its square footage, which comes out to be a little less than that of a regulation basketball court. But perhaps the magic is just that of being brought back into the fold of childhood, when everything felt astounding and expansive like a hidden world beneath a trap door.

The garden sits inside a fenced enclosure, but the perimeter is a thicket of tree kale, dino kale, sour sorrel, and a plethora of other vegetables. Small sheds where tools are kept and watering cans are filled sit off in one corner, and a multi-stage compost bin sits next to the sheds, but the whole effect is a maze of raised beds where children zigzag through the aisles, picking leaves and showing what they find to their friends. (Worms and snails are especially popular.) One area is planted in cover crops like peas, fava, and other spring crops that will be turned under to become a fertile planting ground for tomatoes as the school year ends in June.

Three hundred and fifty students, from transitional kindergarten through third grade, come here for garden class once every two weeks. They tend to the garden and learn about the skills of gardening. But they are also welcome to return here during recess, just to play or snack on vegetables straight from the ground or to ask Ms. Rivka questions. Ozmo says he didn’t eat like this before coming to the garden: “Um, no. I just kind of realized this last week. No, this week.” A hidden world, indeed. He says he will be coming back.

Ozmo is casual about his relationship to the garden. “I told my family, but my friends, they’re doing other things, so they ignore it,” he says. It seems, though, that new children are discovering the joys of the garden throughout each season and the ones who spend their recess here do so all the time. The garden isn’t open every day of the school week, so many kids are quick to provide the qualifier: Every time the garden is open, they are here.


Ready to eat their weedos are (left to right from top): twins Cal and Reggie; Arya; Jarrod and Nia; Max; Diarra, Noa, Summiya, and Elhana.  With Ms. Rivka are Nahier (left) and Charley. Photos by or courtesy of Rivka Mason


The kids like to show off their weedos. Ozmo’s classmate Rosalie holds hers carefully with both hands as she lists what she included: “Kale, speckled lettuce, um … um, and sour grass flowers, and purple cauliflower, and then an apple.” When it comes to eating the weedo, she explains, “You just take a big bite.”

“[They] are so good, I want thirds,” says Thanu (short for Thanushri), who says she prefers a weedo made with kale, sour grass, and the hot cheeto plant. When queried regarding the hot cheeto plant, she explains:

“It’s a plant, but I do not remember what plant, but I am thinking it’s a hot cheeto, but I’m not sure.” The intel has it that while some kids call them “hot cheetos,” and some call them “hot chips,” they are, in fact, nasturtiums, which are known for having slightly spicy edible leaves and flowers. The kids develop their own nomenclature in the garden, and it passes along from year to year, grade to grade, and the names are accepted as fact—hot cheetos, weedos.

Evelyn says her favorite vegetable is the Chinese spinach. She laughs and says it tastes like “plastic,” then chews more carefully and adds, “It tastes good, tastes sour … my mouth is, like, burning up right now because I ate a sour leaf and then I ate another sour leaf and then I ate a really, really, spicy leaf.” Evelyn can’t remember which leaf was the spicy leaf, but it was likely a hot cheeto.

At this point, Ozmo’s magnificent weedo is taking up his entire six-year-old hand and is expanding outward, just like a burrito. The garden provides an endless buffet of edible leaves and veggies and flowers, but at a certain point, the kids must finish packing their weedos and transition to eating them.

When asked how he knows his weedo is ready, Ozmo says, “When I … in my brain … I have a checklist … after, I know I’m done with the checklist.” The criteria in the checklist? “Like all the vegetables I put in here.”

Harris, seven, announces a thoughtful distinction: “The garden is just like a healthy restaurant.”

Other kids run up with found worms, asking where to put them. Ms. Rivka directs them to the compost bin, where worms help break down the food scraps and leaves. Evelyn proclaims, “I just did my fourth worm rescue” before once again running off through the garden.

The kids approach in waves to make little announcements, ask questions, and generally make it known how much fun they are having and how much they like it here. “Ms. Rivka, can you get 19ths? I mean, 20ths?” It’s sweet, childish hyperbole, but there is also some truth to this. The kids are eating a lot of vegetables and circling around and around the garden for more. They ask for “permission” not because they might question whether this or that is allowed, but because they are so proud of themselves for helping to create this garden, grow what is here, and eat their very own yields straight off the stalk.

Rosalie returns with her second weedo. “There is sour grass, there is regular lettuce, there is kale, there is purple broccoli flower, there is radish, and there is … um … apple!” She is proud and happy, and after she takes her first bite she says, “it tastes so good.”

Many kids spend their entire recess this way, running and eating weedos until the bell rings and the echo of the bell dwindles. “Next time, get a bigger leaf, honey,” Ms. Rivka says as a parting remark to a child who holds a minimalist weedo in her hands. Ms. Rivka is hurriedly giving final little slices of apple to the straggling six- and seven-year-olds before they run back inside for class.

A group of slightly older kids arrives. Among them is Kenta, age 10, who is immensely patient, kind, and knowledgeable about the garden. “This is the tree kale,” he says. “Most people take these leaves, and they’re the base, they’re the shell, and then they put any other kinds of kales and other kinds of greens.”

Kenta assembles a weedo at the Malcolm X Elementary School Garden. Photo by Rachel Stanich.

Kenta says, “I did not know kale existed before I came to this school.” To be fair, Kenta started at this school in transitional kindergarten, meaning he was four years old at the time, and one wonders how many four-year-olds would know about kale, or whether looking back on that age, a child would remember a distinct before. Either way, Kenta is earnest about the distinction, and he certainly seems to prefer his life with the garden to life without it. “Or maybe I actually started coming here in kindergarten. Um, yeah. And now I come here just about every day that it’s open. To sit in the garden, to play with the snails—also to make weedos.”

Alice, 10, comes up with a rhetorical question. Her face is a mix of exasperation and amusement and pride in this place—the garden—which is hers. She asks, “You guys got any sugarcane here?”

Waiting a beat, she replies, “We do have sugarcane. It’s in the back.” And, indeed, the sugarcane is there, appearing as if out of nowhere, tucked along the back fence. Alice, who self-identifies as having a sweet tooth, points out a snail resting on a tall stalk and calls Kenta over to see it. “I’ve got something to show you! This snail likes sugarcane. The snail has a sweet tooth.”

Kenta, who appears to be respected as a snail whisperer, picks up this snail in his hands and watches until its smooth speckled body slowly reemerges from its shell. “It’s interesting to hold them because they only move when they’re in direct sunlight,” Kenta says. “Well, usually they only move when they’re in direct sunlight, like right now. It’s weird how snails can fit their heads, their entire bodies, in this small shell.”

Whenever a snail is found—and many of the children love seeking and finding them—the mollusk is whisked across the garden, away from whichever plant it was resting on, to be transplanted into a little snail habitat that Ms. Rivka created out of an old plastic box cut with air holes and filled with various greens for its denizens to both rest and munch on. Kenta explains why the snails must be moved out of the garden and into the snail containment: “Because otherwise they’ll start eating up the lettuce.” He points to the proof. Several big leaves are spotted all over with little holes that have been eaten away by snails.

Kenta, a weedo aficionado, enumerates his favorite inclusions: “The broccoli, the cauliflower—I’m not sure if this one is broccoli or cauliflower—and the fava bean leaves, and someday these fava bean leaves will be taller than I am … and the Chinese spinach … and here we have some lettuce.” Kenta gestures with a bit of a flourish toward lettuces that have bolted to flower, “I wouldn’t take any of these lettuces because they don’t taste as good after they sprout flowers.”

Kenta knows a lot about gardens but gives credit where it’s due. “Well, Ms. Rivka taught us. She doesn’t teach the fourth and fifth graders because we have science, but most of us remember what she’s taught us, and she keeps on teaching us even …” He’s interrupted by an uproar over by the snail habitat, where some child is yelling, “I would never kill a snail!” but Kenta continues, “… even after we are no longer in her class.”

Kenta and many kids hold the vegetables here in high regard. Kenta articulates why: “Well, [the vegetables], they actually sort of taste better than the ones that you buy from the store, probably because you’re actually growing them yourself, so you feel a bit better actually eating them because then you have the fruit of your toils.”

The bell rings for the end of recess. Kenta finishes building up his last weedo of the recess, tops it off with a piece of purple broccoli, says a quick “bye,” and is off.

The garden is quiet. Ms. Rivka shifts from teacher mode to peer mode to clarify the weedo origin story:

“They were coined by some third graders during recess time. They were out here, and this tree kale, it kind of looks like a taco shell. So, they were taking these huge leaves and putting all these things in it. And one day I asked them, ‘What should we call these?’ and one kid yelled out, ‘garden burrito,’ and another kid yelled out, ‘weedo,’ and it just stuck. I’ve been here 25 years. It happened at least 20 years ago.”

Ms. Rivka’s charge is to tend to the child gardeners here, but grown-ups are also welcome and encouraged to experience the garden’s specialty cuisine. It starts with the big, wide tree kale leaf for the shell, and from there, it might be whatever is fresh and enticing: little broccoli florets, yellow broccoli flowers, sour sorrel, sour grass, Chinese spinach, fava bean leaves, fennel fronds, onion grass, Indigenous lettuce, arugula flowers, Italian parsley, either all together or in curated proportions. The weedo is crisp and fresh and bright, sweet in parts, sour in parts, savory, and spicy. It tastes like a spring day feels—sunny, with a breeze, birds chirping, and the sound of children’s voices floating through just-opened windows. ♦


Nora Becker is an editorial assistant at UC Press. She moonlights at the Tuesday South Berkeley Farmers’ Market for Full Belly Farm.